Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
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Recently, after The Two Thrones was a success with us, we put the first in the second Prince of Persia trilogy, The Sands of Time on our rental queue, and after playing it in several short bursts we finished it this weekend.

I completely missed the PS2-era three part series the first time around because of a significant amount of prejudice against it, largely because of the fanbase it seemed to attract - mostly visible through the shockingly high number of AMVs that seemed to be made of it featuring Evanescence, Linkin Park and Nickelback. I think I will always hold up the middle of this entry as the wrongest I've ever been, but my impressions of the games based on those fanmade monstrosities came close - despite those, they (or at least the two of them I've played so far) are actually fantastic, and do a decent job of keeping the spirit of the originals while at the same time updating them to work in three dimensions.

Of course, the problem with playing things backwards is that the earlier ones seem a little cracked in comparison, as the things that were fixed in the later versions instead seem like new problems that you're not used to seeing. Based on the two we've played, the acrobatics of the series seem to have stayed rather similar throughout, with only a couple of features now (then) missing such as the ability to balance on poles or bounce off shutters in a physically improbable way.

But it's the combat that really got to me for the entire first half of the game. Most of the fights are against about ten to twenty different enemies, all of which have to be knocked down and then finished off like most things you encounter in Silent Hill (or alternatively you have a limited supply of specials that you can use to instantly evaporate them) - however, you're only ever up against a maximum of four at once. While that sounds like a mercy at first, in reality four is enough to surround you and make life very difficult, and as soon as you off one another one teleports in, giving you no idea about how long you're going to have to keep going.

I gradually found this situation much easier to cope with as the game went on - perhaps my incredible frustration with it at first was because of travelling back from Provincetown the same day - but there are still problems with it that feel vastly unfair, like the way that your buffer of rewindable time empties completely immediately after "collecting" an enemy. I can guess as to the technical reason they did it - to avoid having to worry about recreating enemy objects - but when you're stabbed in the bottom by the last enemy you didn't see when you're immobile and can't restore yourself, it's enough to make you throw your controller at the wall.

With that out the way, what I really loved about the game was the interaction between the still unnamed Prince and Farah, who accompanies you through most of the game. The cut-scenes are as poorly acted as you could reasonably expect from a game because hardly anyone seems to have got this right even after about fifteen years, but surprisingly it's the speech within the game, where you would expect it to be far more obviously scripted and therefore stilted and unnatural, that works wonderfully. The two characters, rather than working their way mutely through a ten-hour-long game, actually talk to each other about the rooms that they're facing and work together to progress. Farah points out difficult-to-see ledges to you if you've been standing around wondering where you're going for a few seconds, and gives shouts of encouragement or shocked gasps if you slip and nearly fall a hundred million feet to your doom (as seems to be a common hazard in these games). In one of the best examples, as you're busily hauling mirrors around to solve a light-reflecting puzzle, she has a chance of calling "Use them to hit the symbol on the wall!" Any other game would just leave it at that, but instead the Prince irritatedly shouts back "What do you think I'm trying to do?!"

The only real unavoidable problem with the game is that once you've gone through it once, you've really seen it all - essentially it's a very large obstacle course that only has one route through it, and while it's incredible that they managed to use the moves you have available in such varied ways throughout, once you've worked out each section you just have to go through the motions of getting past them to progress the next time. Although the sense of liveliness in the characters also shines through here - when going through the first section a second time, slightly different things happened in the conversations, the biggest of which was when I forgot to move a statue so that Farah could take her route, and got stuck next to a closed door - Farah offered to step on the pressure plate herself, but the Prince said that that would leave her stuck and called that he was coming back. It's a hint that you've done something wrong, presented in an entirely natural way.

And the reason that I was going through it again was that the Mac version of the original POP, or at least a close approximation to it, is included as a bonus. It feels slightly slower than the PC version and the controls are a bit weird on the pad, but I still managed to get through it start to finish in about thirty minutes. I can't remember the last time I saw the timer of that game at thirty minutes.